By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
The Nigerian mass media—and the online echo chambers they have spawned on social media and elsewhere—have normalized the pathologization and criminalization of the Fulani ethnic identity through their popularization of the odious “Fulani herdsmen” collocation. Criminalizing and pathologizing an entire ethnic identity is often the precursor to genocide.
That’s why an ignorant and hate-filled preacher by the name of Apostle Johnson Suleiman could glibly tell his church members to extra-judicially murder “Fulani herdsmen.” “And I told my people, any Fulani herdsman you see around you, kill him,” he said in a widely circulated video. “I have told them in the church here that any Fulani herdsman that just entered by mistake, kill him, kill him! Cut his head!”
Before I am misunderstood, let me be clear that I am not defending, excusing, or minimizing the mass murders attributed to some “Fulani herdsmen” in Agatu, southern Kaduna, and elsewhere. No human being deserves to be killed by any group for any reason. For as long as I breathe, I will always defend the sanctity of human life. That’s why, although I’m not a Shiite, I came down very hard on the Buhari government for its horrendously bestial mass slaughter of innocent Shiites in 2015.
But we can condemn a wrong by a people without tarring an entire community numbering millions of people across vast swathes of land in West Africa with a broad brush. The Fulani people are far and away the most widely dispersed ethnic group in West Africa. And, although they dominate the cattle herding trade, they are not all cattle herders, and most cattle herders aren’t violent and murderous. Nor are all cattle herders Fulanis.
Most importantly, though, although “settled,” urban Fulanis are mostly Muslims, cattle-herding Fulanis are mostly neither Muslims nor Christians. Their whole religion is usually just the welfare of their cattle. In addition, cattle-herding Fulanis don’t recognize, much less have loyalty to, Nigeria’s prevailing geopolitical demarcations. In other words, they are not invariably northerners.
So if they have sanguinary clashes with farmers, those clashes aren’t instigated by religion or region. They are just age-old farmer/herder clashes. I admit, though, that it isn’t just Middle Beltan and southern Nigerian victims of farmer/herder clashes that use the lenses of Nigeria’s primordial fissures to gaze at Fulani herders; northern Nigerian Muslim politicians, especially those that have a Fulani bloodline, also use these lenses to defend and protect their “kinsfolk,” often ignorantly and opportunistically.
In 2000, for instance, General Muhammadu Buhari traveled all the way from Kaduna to Ibadan to protect Fulani herdsmen who were at the receiving end of retaliatory killings by Yoruba farmers. Governor el-Rufai is also a self-confessed Fulani supremacist who once threatened retaliation against other ethnic groups on behalf of Fulani herders. I think it is these sorts of misguided parochialisms that conduce to the conflation of Fulani herder identity with the identity and divisive politics of urban northern Nigerian elites with tinctures of Fulani ancestry.
But this is all wrong. My late father was raised by Fulani herders for the first 12 years of his life. I also have adoptive full-blooded Fulani cousins who were raised by my grandfather and my paternal aunt. They were abandoned at birth in the hospital when their mothers died in labor in my hometown, and they were adopted by my grandfather. That was not unusual in my community in bygone days. So when I talk of cattle-herding Fulani people, I do so with the benefit both of personal experience and scholarly immersion into their life, history and ways.
The Fulani nomads who destroy communities throughout West Africa, not just in Nigeria, don't have any sense of rootedness in any modern nation-state. They are, for the most part, untouched by the faintest sprinkle of modernity, and owe no allegiance to any overarching primordial, regional, or religious identity. That’s why they are called transhumant pastoralists.
But there are also bucolic Fulani herders who plant roots in communities, live peacefully with their hosts, and even speak the languages of the communities they choose to live in. In my hometown, the Fulani are so integral to the community that the king of the Fulani, who is appointed by our emir (who isn’t Fulani), is part of the 7 kingmakers that elect a new emir. These rooted, bucolic Fulani herders are often exempt from the episodic communal upheavals that so often erupt between sedentary communities and itinerant herders.
I recall that there was a particularly sanguinary class between Fulani herders and farmers in the early 1990s that caused so many deaths in western Borgu. Farmers chose to retaliate the killings of their kind and organized a well-planned counter attack that caused scores of itinerant cattle herders—and their cattle—to be killed. What was intriguing about the counter attack was that the farmers spared all settled Fulani herders. They told them apart from the transhumant herders because the local Fulani spoke the local language. Ability to speak the local language indicated that they weren't the "citizens without frontiers" who unleashed terror on farming communities.
A similar incident happened in the Oke-Ogun area of Oyo State in 2000. In the retaliatory attacks against Fulani nomads who killed farmers, Yoruba-speaking Fulani cattle herders were spared. Like in Borgu and elsewhere, bucolic Fulani herders are intricately woven into the fabric of the communities in which they live.
I am saying all this to call attention to the reality that farmer/herder clashes aren't north-south, Muslim-Christian or ethnic conflicts. The Fulani who have lived in the south for ages don't see themselves as northerners living in the south—and they are NOT. In any case, they've lived there prior to the advent of colonialism that invented the Nigerian nation-state. Notions of southern Nigeria and northern Nigeria are colonial categories that have little or no meaning to both the bucolic Fulani nomads who live peacefully with their hosts and the blood-thirsty, marauding citizens without frontiers who inflict violence on farming communities all over West Africa, not just in southern or Middle Beltan Nigeria.
So which of the two categories of Fulani herders do the Nigerian media mean when they criminalize “Fulani herdsmen?” And which one does Apostle Suleiman want his church members to murder in cold blood?
But it gets even trickier. Sometime in 2003 in Gombe, itinerant Fulani herders called the Udawa killed scores of farmers most of whom were ethnic and linguistic Fulanis. Former Governor Abubakar Hashidu had to request federal military assistance to contain the menace of the Udawa. Similarly, hundreds of Hausa and Fulani farmers in Nigeria’s northwest get killed by transhumant Fulani herders every year. But such stories don’t make it to the national news because it isn’t “newsy” to read about Fulani herders killing Fulani farmers.
The media have a responsibility to let the world know that it is transhumant herders with no sense of geographic rootedness that are drenching communities in blood, not all “Fulani herdsmen,” many of whom are peaceful, organic members of the communities in which they live.